Review: Chivalry: Medieval Warfare
May I brag a bit? When it comes to virtual battlefields, I consider myself to be quite the grizzled vet. It's doesn't matter if it is the deadly combined arms environment of Battlefield 3 or the high intensity close quarters combat of Black Ops 2, I just laugh at the dangers of the modern battlefield. Laugh! It is only with relish that I grab my rifle and rush off to engage my eager foe. So, that being the case...why do I find myself quaking at the battlefield dangers of Chivalry: Modern Warfare? Why do I get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I face off against a foe armed with a nasty looking axe? Why do I find myself needing to hit the 'C' key for a war cry just to put some steel in my backbone? The answer is simple: Torn Banner has managed to produce not just one of the most entertaining multiplayer games in a long time, but has also managed to produce a game that is downright frightening in its medieval hack and slash brutality. For these reasons and more, it is a title not to be missed.
Noble or Commoner?
I know what you are thinking: “But isn't this like that other medieval slasher with the horseback combat? Or the one with the dragons and magic?” Yes, that is a fair analogy. All of those games deal with the sword and shield combat of the medieval era, just as Chivalry does, but while those earlier titles have a strong role-playing element, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare focuses exclusively upon brutal online competition that features up to 64 players. So while comparisons to those other titles are justified, I actually find that Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is more closely related to the multiplayer portion of Call of Duty. But don't let that scare you.
As with your typical online shooter, the player begins his medieval career picking one of four classes, this time featuring the archer, the man-at-arms, the vanguard and the knight. For the most part, these classes act exactly as you would expect: the Archer is skilled at loosing arrows and bolts at long range targets, while the Knight is your standard tank. The Man-at-Arms is a light skirmisher, while the Vanguard sort of bridges the gap between the Knight and the Man-at-Arms with his mid-range armor and deadly polearms. Each of these classes also come with a special ability, such as the Archer's “rogue” ability that deals 50% back-stab damage, or the Man-at-Arms “elusive” ability that allows him to quickly dodge out of danger with a double-tap to a movement key.
After picking a class, the player is given a choice of loadout comprised of a primary, secondary and tertiary weapon – there are over 60 weapons in all to choose from. For example, the Archer might choose a crossbow over a longbow for his primary, a broad dagger over a shortsword for his secondary, and a bodkin arrow over a broadhead arrow for his third pick. Needless to say, each weapon has its own characteristics based on damage, speed, stamina cost, and various other factors depending on the weapon in question. In this way, the player can kit out his class in a way that suits his playing style.
Tis Only a Flesh Wound
Then it is off to the battlefield! And it won't take long for the player to discover why it is called Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, either. In fact, as soon as his first limb is taken off by a particular viscous swing of a double axe, he is going to realize that this isn't a game about relatively neat modern warfare. But don't fret, the learning curve is relatively easy.
The player has a choice of a first or third person perspective, something that is nice to have in a game such as this were situational awareness can be crucial. Regardless of the perspective chosen, the player controls his movement with the standard WASD keyboard scheme ('shift' to sprint, 'control' to duck, 'spacebar' to jump, of course). Using your weapon is also conventional: left mouse button to swing/shoot and right mouse button to block/aim. The mouse wheel has attack functions as well, including overhead overhead slices and underhanded jabs. In addition to this, player's can kick with their foot to break a shield block, or hit 'Q' to feint an attack. It's really as simple as that.
However, just as chess is easy to learn but hard to master, so is it with Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Quite frankly, I am amazed at how Torn Banner has managed to so accurately capture such a difficult mode of combat. Let's be honest: mimicking modern combat is a snap compared to medieval warfare as putting a crosshair on a target via a mouse and keyboard is not all that different from actually doing so in real life. However, capturing the essence of the sword and shield on a game machine is a vastly different undertaking as combat is about more than mere accuracy, it is about spatial relationships and brute strength, something more akin to dancing than gunplay. Yet, somehow, Torn Banner has managed to capture that exact essence. In fact, I think it is a strong testament to the gameplay found in Chivalry that I often find myself swaying and ducking in my chair in sympathy to the on-screen action.
And what action it is! As I wrote in my introduction, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is a brutal experience. You're not cleanly 'dropping' a target from across the map with a sniper rifle, but rather invading the 'personal space' of your opponent...and proceeding to try to hack him to pieces, something that is often easier said than done. What usually results is a fascinating – and physically demanding – ballet where timing is everything. Swords / daggers / polearms will clash time and again without effect, leading to players cautiously circling each other, and occasionally feinting, in the hope of getting that crucial opening that will allow for a deadly riposte. Keep in mind that swinging rather hefty weapons while wearing rather hefty armor takes a lot of strength, something that is nicely modeled by Chivalry's 'stamina' bar. Every swing the player takes costs stamina, and if he uses too much, well...it's not easy to defend yourself when you are left breathless. Stamina adds a nice wrinkle that keeps players from endless spamming attacks, and serves to make the combat feel all the more realistic.
What results from this system is a unique combat experience where every fight is a remarkably intimate encounter where tunnel vision will eventually reduce the scope of the battlefield to just you and your deadly opponent. It is for this reason that every bloody victory – and you will see blood in this game as limbs and heads are cleaved from bodies – feels like such a triumph as so much work goes into bringing down a foe. Thanks to Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, I finally know how Achilles must have felt after defeating Hector (and yes, there is already an ancients mod being planned).
Call me Kingslayer
Another impressive aspect of Chivalry are the many maps and game modes. Really, this is one of those all too infrequent attempts by a dev to give more and not less with the base game. There are five game modes to keep things interesting. The most chaotic is Free-for-All, which is every man for himself in a bloody and chaotic brawl. King of the Hill is almost as chaotic as the Mason Order and the Agatha Knights – Chivalry's stock two factions – fight for control of a central objective. Team Deathmatch...doesn't really need an explanation, does it? And Last Team Standing is a fun mutation on Team Deathmatch; here, every player gets one life per round of combat, making for much more careful melees. However, I think my favorite mode is Team Objective. It is in this mode that the Masons and Agatha Knights fight to achieve interactive objectives, across the game's six lush maps, that really are quite interesting in their own right. In 'Stonehill', for example, the attacking Mason Order must first slaughter a peasant village before moving on to breach a nearby keep and then kill the king within. Needless to say, the defending Agatha Knights are charged with stopping this assault, using everything from swords and bows, to boiling oil and ballistas. What usually results is a swirling medieval battle that rages with all the intensity of a game of conquest in Battlefield 3...but with more environmental interaction.
I also have to commend Torn Banner on their excellent sound work. While the music is suitably rousing, it's the sound of men at war that really takes the crown. Weaponry clings, clashes and thunks with suitable weight, while blood spurts, splashes and gurgles with cringe-worthy realism. In addition to this, the game's extensive inventory of player-triggered battle cries are most impressive – I swear it is almost possible to have a complete conversation with them. But more than that, these cries serve to bring the battles to life with a level of auditory realism not often encountered in other games. There is just nothing to match Chivalry's ability to allow the player to charge into battle with a defiant yet terrified bellow issuing from his manly throat.
So What's Not to Like?
I think the biggest failing of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare are the lack of customization options. While you can select your class and loadout, and later on even earn a custom helmet or two, there is little else to distinguish you from the crowd. This is a real shame as I suspect that Chivalry could prove to be a far more engaging RPG experience than most MMOs. Interestingly, the game was originally described as including “titles and traits”, but there is none of that to be had at the moment.
Likewise is the lackluster leveling system. The only reason I know there are levels is because the game briefly flashes a message when you level up - and I am not even sure how one levels up as experience points are not tabulated in any fashion that I can see. Likewise, while the player can unlock new weapons, the current system of arbitrary kill counts per weapon is a little lackluster. Shame. Again, I think Chivalry could offer a great RPG-like experience, but it first needs to apply a lot of much needed content to both its customization and leveling systems.
Then there is the lack of a movie maker...okay, this isn't a flaw as much as something of a burning desire on my part. I have seen – and been in! - some fantastic duels, and I find it a real shame that I cannot go back to replay the session and make a movie of the action. I can think of no better way to promote Chivalry than for Torn Banner to eventually include such a feature.
Lastly, there is the blood and gore. Yeah, yeah...video games have nothing on cinema when it comes to portrayals of graphic violence (so why did President Obama single out video games as a cultural connection to gun violence? But that is a topic for a different time....), but Chivalry: Medieval Warfare can nonetheless be a shock to sensitive souls. I, for one, applaud Torn Banner for bringing the oft whitewashed carnage of a medieval battle to life like never before, but I can understand why some might find severed limbs, smashed heads, and copious splashes of blood off putting, especially in light of the new post-Sandy Hook video game sensitivity. You've been warned.
Verily: Content Update One
A few days ago, Torn Banner released the first content update for Chivalry. In addition to a bunch of bug fixes and balancing, this update brings some new weapons, a capture the flag mode, and a surprising number of new maps – 13 in all. The bulk of these maps revolve around the new “Duel Mode” where players are matched one on one and fight to the death across a series of rounds. I find this mode a refreshing change to the often chaotic battlefields of the original modes. At least now we can focus on one opponent without needing to fear being literally stabbed in the back by an unseen foe!
On the negative side, it looks like the new content introduced more than a few new bugs as well. Some of the new duel mode maps are particularly buggy, as well as the UI for this gameplay mode. Nothing too terrible all things considered, but I will say that the game now feels less polished to me than it did before this update. Sometimes less is more, my noble lords.